Ghost Light

A Novel

Joseph O'Connor

Picador

A LODGING-HOUSE ROOM IN LONDON

27 October 1952

6.43 a.m.

In the top floor room of the dilapidated town house across the Terrace, a light has been on all night. From your bed it was visible whenever you turned towards the window, which you had to do in order to fetch your bottle from the floor. Most nights, the same. The bulb is lighted at dusk. In the mornings, a couple of moments after the street lamps flicker out, it dies, and the ragged curtain is closed.

You are sixty-five now, perhaps the age of that house, perhaps even a little older – what a thought. You approach your only window; it is shockingly cold to the touch. Winter is coming to England. The weather has been bitter. Last night a hurricane struck London.

You have never noticed anyone enter or exit that forlorn house, but the postman still delivers to it, stuffing envelopes through the broken glass in the door panel – the letterbox has been nailed closed many years. Men urinate in the porch. One of the street­ girls plies her trade there, and the balustrade has long been splashed with obscene words. Many of the window embrasures are boarded. Buddleia sprouts from the façade.

You have a sense that the occupant of the room is a man. One midnight a fleeting shadow crossed the upper windowpane – so you thought – and there was maleness in how it moved. There was a time when you used to think about him – how can he live alone in a bomb-blasted old house? who sends the letters? what are they about? – for it helped to pass the brutal hours

Immediately preceding dawn. But this morning someone else is come to you again, out of the same light, somehow, out of an unseen room, out of a city you have lived in the last thirteen years but have never found a reason to call your own. This has happened to all of us: a coasting across the mind by one we had thought forgotten or purposefully banished. But today will prove him a wanderer reluctant to be exiled, an emigrant still at­ tempting to come home.

He could be difficult sometimes. What use in denying it? Irritable, unforgiving, for a relatively young man. Because the whisperers and poke-bonnets and gossips and sniggerers always made such a point of the age difference between you. Envious vixens. Triple-chinned hypocrites, too deceitful to utter their true objection. What are years? Fictions. Ink-stains on a calendar. There are moments, of late, when yesterday feels a life ago, and tomorrow an unborn century, so unreachable it seems. And had he lived beyond his youth, the years would have contracted, be­ cause a married couple become the same age, grow to resemble one another over time, like bookends, their recollections in greyed bindings between them and neither bothering to read what once divided them. What’s this he’d be now? Eighty? Something. A slippered old duffer. A shuffler. An auld bags. Hard to work the calculation through the fug of a hangover. Your reckoning of the decades keeps stalling, tripping up. After a few ruined attempts, you abandon it.

You take a small, sour sip. Medicinal. Just a settler. The reek of gin dampens your eyes, somehow intensifies his presence, but you grimace it away with a swallow. The daily spite of this unmannerly town. Wasn’t it Yeats wrote that? Or my other lunk? Shaw. Dublin, he was whining about; but all towns are unmannerly, to the old, the poor, the collaborator. What is it in poets that must dress a thing up? Christ, they’d nearly call their dandruff ‘the fairy-snow’.

Not long after dawn. The shadow-kissing time. Grey light at the window and the whistle of the kettle as you move about, failing to keep warm. Mittens flittered to ribbons. You wear a dead man’s boots. Well, no point in wastefulness. A sin. Down below in Brickfields Terrace, a milk wagon is delivering. You wonder would the man advance you another month’s credit but the fear of being declined dissuades you. Hoarfrost silvers the pavement, the telephone kiosk, the street, the wrecked colonnades of the house where the light burns all night, an awning over the grocer’s on the corner of Porchester Road. Rooks are circling the chimney breasts.

Johnny Synge’s bit of native. The proddy’s little squaw. That Kingstown playboy’s huer. Insults hurled long ago by the wags of witty Dublin, still audible after more than forty years.

You shuffle away from the window, to the cubbyhole by the cooking ring. The room smells of cabbage-water and dust. Somewhere below you a wireless is playing too loudly but you do not object to the interruption, find it oddly cheering sometimes. There are hours, late at night, when you miss its consolation. Silence can be frightening to the lonely. He always said you were over-imaginative, too given to fantasy. A Catholic trait, he would joke. These nights, you read Mills & Boons from the tuppenny library in Earl’s Court Road. Sure you’d be lost for a bit of an escape only it wasn’t for True Romances. How he’d have hated them, your dog-eared and tearstained bedfellows. ‘Opium for spinsters,’ he’d mock.

The sun would dry the oceans wide;

Heaven would cease to be;

The world would cease its motion, my love,

Ere I’d prove false to thee.

A song that would draw the heart out of you, Molly. That anyone ever felt such devotion.

A drop or two of milk would take the scald off the gin. This cheap stuff hits your throat like boiled sand. Eighty-one. His age. If he was alive today. Were he to be alive. Still correcting your grammar. The sense that you were an embarrassment to him has never quite surrendered. The difference was not only one of age.

The cupboard contains a tea caddy decorated with a transfer of a parrot, and an empty sugar bag that can be scraped for its few last grains. You are thinking about the milkman, who is old beyond his years. They say he was shell-shocked at Anzio. The children of the neighbourhood are afraid of him, call him names. It is whispered that he has queer obsessions, with dog­ dirt, with blood, with immigrants, especially Poles, and the lack of public lavatories. He used to make a nuisance of himself with a pretty schoolgirl as she took the short cut to St Catherine’s, and now no schoolgirls are ever seen on the Terrace. He has the grin of a corpse and the bearing of a soldier, but sometimes he stretches his stride as one negotiating stepping­ stones, laughing the while through his teeth. Has he failed to understand that the gaiety of the passers-by is forced, is actually a peculiarly English kind of hatred? Perhaps an under­ standing could be reached. If one went to him with honesty. But no. It would not be seemly.

—One does not ask for credit, Changeling. If appropriate, it is offered. One must always cut one’s cloth having regard to proprieties. Anything less is the death of civilisation.

The cat slinks haughtily across the sticky, bare floorboards and arches its back against a chair-leg. Of a sudden it appears taken by a leather-framed photograph that is propped between two empty candlesticks on the mantelshelf. The man in the portrait has been dead a long time. His clothes are Edwardian: a shabby plus-four suit and brogues, a loose varsity cap, a knotted kerchief about the throat. An ashplant cane in the gloved right hand and a book protruding slightly from the pocket. Sepia has made his garments the same colour as his hair, as his mother’s chaise longue in the background. The picture has shrivelled over the years. It has seen many mantelshelves; many boxes and cheap hotel rooms, the greenrooms, the flophouses, the pouches of a cardboard suitcase. There is a stiffness in how he holds himself, as one braving the firing squad in an opera, and the eyes, martyr­ sad, are very slightly blurred, as though he blinked or was weeping at the moment the shutter was opened. But that would have been so unlike him.

A medieval Scottish ballad on an unseen wireless. You’d be grateful for the coming of morning. The slow plodding clop of the milkman’s dray. Someone’s motor car grumbles into life, a bicycle bell trills, and the phantoms recede into the wallpaper. You seem to see yourself at a distance, as a character in a story, perhaps. Miss O’Neill shivers at the table, drinks the acrid black tea. An offcut of linoleum serves raggedly as tablecloth; it is spotted with candle grease and cigarette burns. Here and there on its surface appears a crest of crossed rapiers with the motto fides et robur. She has twice been married, once widowed, once divorced. Her only son, an RAF pilot, was killed in the war, shot down over northern Germany, never found. It has been a long time indeed since she last played a leading role, since the palaces of Broadway rang with acclamation for her brilliance, but in whatever life those riotous ovations still echo, if they do, the ghost of a curtain still rises. One St Patrick’s Night they stopped a train in Scranton, Pennsylvania, for the townspeople had somehow heard Molly Allgood was on board. Irish immigrant families. Weeping and cheering. Lofting children on their shoulders. An old miner kissing her hand. Coal dust under his fingernails. Withered sham­ rock in his cap. You peer at your bony knuckles, see the fossil of a bird’s wing. Can they remember they were once kissed in Pennsylvania?

Mother of Christ

Star of the Sea

Hope of the wanderer

Pray for me.

Somewhere in the room is a packet of old programmes all containing your name, but you wouldn’t know where to find it among the clutter. Anyhow, the ones signed by the famous were long ago sold, with whatever books were worth anything at all. There is a little bookshop in Russell Square where they specialise in autographs. A kindly widower, a Jew, shy and scholarly, is the proprietor. A Communist, so they say – he denies actual member­ ship. He lost an arm in the Spanish Civil War.

Does the body remember? When the mind has forgotten? Does Mr Duglacz dream that he is whole again, a sweat-stained revo­ lutionary? If he stretched to pull an orange in the soporific heat of a grove, or groped towards some Annamaria’s scarlet, mournful mouth, would he see his vanished hand and weep? And if dreams unmask our longings, as the wise have claimed since the Greeks, why is it that the dead are so often silent when we dream them? Don’t we want them to speak? What would they say? Does Mr Duglacz ever dream himself a baby?

He always paid cash, more than fairly at that, was glad to see you coming, offered tea or a small sherry, showed you volumes he had recently acquired at house clearances in the shires, was perhaps even a little flirtatious in the abashed way of old men as he fumbled among his broadsheets and foxed aquatints. (‘This might interest you, Miss O’Neill, the binding is exquisite. Not everyone could appreciate it as you would.’) But you have almost nothing left to offer him and no pretext for calling. It has been more than a year. You think of him sometimes. His embarrassed, touching courtesies and mild self-deprecations; his cheerfulness only grief turned brave. At moments he suddenly arises like a rumour of himself, or as a reminder of someone else: the man in the photograph on the mantelshelf. Anyhow, you are glad. All that is behind you now. ‘Bloom where you are planted,’ your mother used to say. ‘When sorrow sours your milk, make cheese.’

Life abounds with blessings. To be alive – even that. For the chances against our existence are incalculable, overwhelming; it would mesmerise you even to start considering them. So many you knew are gone. And the billions never born. Nobody should be here. Yet we are. And it is all such a beautiful and strange adventure; who would forgo it only the mad or the broken? This afternoon you have an engagement at the British Broadcasting Corporation, a part in a radio adaptation of a play by Sean O’Casey, one of the many Irish playwrights you once counted among your friends. You have never liked the piece. There are few plays you truly like. You wonder where O’Casey is now.

He would be old, even more bitter. His sweat would taste like the wince-making tea: metallic, like blood, only stewed. They say he lives someplace on the south coast of England (Jaysus), is grown shrivelled with his hatreds, has been blind many years. He wears a skullcap and sea-boots and a filthy Aran sweater he stitched from dead critics’ hair. A face like an elephant’s bollock, one of the stagehands once chuckled, and that was neither today nor yesterday, God knows. Poor Johnnybags Casey and his harem of perceived slights. What must they make of him, the villagers and their children, as he shambles the fogs like a poisoned old dosser on his way to sign fraudulently at the Labour? A Friday night fight-starter. A slum boy translated. Has he friends? Does he drink? You cannot remember now. Is he still at this end of the plank at all? You picture him facing out on the storm-lashed breakwaters, raging at the raucous gulls.

—Napoleon the Third was exiled before dying in terrible agony on the south coast of England. Where a lot of people live in terrible agony.

‘Let me alone,’ you whisper. ‘I am not able for you today.’ The breeze comes back crisply, fricative, falling away, like a saxophonist playing sub-tones, full of breath. The cat pads towards the window and utters a famished mraow. From the cement factory in Paddington Dock, the alleluia of a siren. Men will be making their way from the estates of west London. The wind rising cinders. Wives in their milky happiness. Still the middle of the night in Manhattan.

You have nothing to eat. There has been little for two days. The hunger is dizzying, now groaningly painful, like the feeling that used to assail you when about to menstruate. Kindly, he was then. A womanly solicitude. It is so cold that you consider dressing over your nightgown and vest, but for pity’s sake, Molly, there must always be self-respect. You cannot dander about London knowing you are in a nightgown. It would be a nice pancake if you had an accident and they had to cart you to the hospital. Imagine if you died in the street, girl. Naked, shuddering, your soles on cold boards. Quickly now, Molls, fetch a drawers and a shift. Don’t be minding the lack of curtains for there’s nobody gawping, and a nice fright he’d get if he did. A woman stalks across your memory, a dresser once assigned to you on an American tour, an astonishingly elderly Irishwoman – people said she was a hundred – but her name will not come, is kept at bay by the cold. She’d be dead these many years, you realise now. Was it Mary she was called? Born in Galway.

You have a rudimentary wash at the sink – the lavatory on the upper landing cannot be faced in the mornings – and dress quickly, fumblingly, blaspheming the cold, in your old black blouse and chestnut lambswool twin-set, and run a brush nine times through your hair. How he drowned in my ringlets. His mouth in my curls. Gone to spiderweb now. Old scuttler. The blouse is a little shiny but it is a pre-war Worth; good couture will always last, and proper tailoring. Taking your ancient box of numbered powders, you apply pan-stick and face pack in the little cracked shaving-mirror you inherited with the room: 2j with 3, a fingertip of 13, and yellow for an Italian warmth. After powdering, you dust your temples and cheekbones with terracotta dry rouge, a touch on the end of the chin, carmine lips for youthfulness. As you work, it is your fancy to imagine scenes the mirror has observed. Can it remember the man who first bought it, used it? Perhaps poor Mr Holland, the scaffolder’s mate from Belfast who died in the rusting single bed you lie awake in. You some­ times wear his stiffened boots. You inhale him in dust. For months after you took the room, men would call to visit him, and it fell to you to tell them of his passing. Yes indeed, very sad. No, I myself did not know him. I am afraid I have no address for the family. I believe there is a brother, a priest in Chicago. No, I did not find any hammer. He borrowed it, you say? I am sorry, sir, I cannot assist you.

You had tried to give it dignity, your role as breaker of sad tidings. And you were good at it: poised, neither melodramatic nor too blunt. And it was better than having no role at all. It was how you had first realised you had somehow become old, for nobody is as skilled in the imparting of bad news as an elderly woman from Ireland. Once or twice you had gone so far as to proffer tea or a consoling glass of something – ‘I rarely myself drink, sir, but I happen to have a bottle in beyond at the moment, which I was saving as a gift for a gentleman colleague’ – but the offer had never been accepted. Perhaps it was improper. Some of them had looked frightened as they left.

No need to make your face but to do so is a rite, an act you have long believed brings luck with the doing, and like many of your profession you are unalterably superstitious. And what is need anyhow? We cannot live by mere need. The basest beggars are in the poorest thing superfluous. King Lear. Yes. There must always be more than need. Steam when you exhale. Ice on the window­ pane, on the handles of the cupboard, the tap. Winter is closing on London and you have nothing to burn. Well, perhaps, on your walk, you will see something you could pick up. Broken twigs in the park, a lump or two of anthracite. Maybe try the coke merchant in the alley off Westbourne Grove. Wander into the yard where the navvies shovel the coal. But you would have to be careful not to be noticed, approached. There was unpleasantness the last time. Unwise to try again so soon. You are no beggarwoman, after all, but an artist.

Is it Joan Fontaine someone once told me I was the spit of ? That part in the picture they made of the Daphne du Maurier novel, what’s this was the name of it now? Jesus God, Molly. Laurence Olivier was in it. About the woman and the chap and the house and the drowned wife and the dreaming you went to Manderley again. You pout haughtily in the mirror. Fiercely narrow your eyes. ‘I am Mrs de Winter now,’ you murmur.

Today you shall walk. That is the plan. There must always be a plan, girl; otherwise we pull into ourselves like snails, and the devil conjures thoughts for the untidy mind and you can lose thirty years in such a withdrawal. This is how time unfolds when you are old and susceptible. Wander into its spiralled shell and it is hard to escape. The glisten that looks inviting to age-bleared eyes has a way of suddenly liquefying and then coagulating around your heart, and the womb in which you find yourself so numb­ ingly cocooned is too enveloping to allow you to resurface. You will walk from your room to Broadcasting House, through the grey, busy streets of a late October London, perhaps digressing through Hyde Park, for there is no need to hurry; the rehearsal is not until five o’clock. It will clear your jumbled thoughts to be away from this room. A change is as bracing as a rest. You might even kill an hour in the National Portrait Gallery, where it is always warm in wintertime and the porters are courteous, or perhaps light a candle for the poor in St Martin-in-the-Fields, a church whose strange name you love saying. It only costs a penny and sometimes there is music, the choristers practising Bach, or an organist at rehearsal. The great, fat pipes of the sonorous organ like giant bottles lined up on a bar. And the ground-bass rumbling through you, to the meats of your teeth. It is not too long to Advent. There might even be Handel. Better to light one flame than be cursing the darkness. And the store windows on Jermyn Street will be beautiful.

Was it stitched into a tapestry primer? Bloom Where You Are Planted. Because Sara was at the sewing of it all that summer I left school. Wasn’t it Georgie had it framed and it hanging in Muddy’s bedroom between the crucifix and the daguerreotype of Avoca. ‘Jesus, come down and give me a rest.’ Muddy’s joke when she was wearied by a long day in the shop. Does he be looking and you naked, Mam? Sally red with laughter. Would he bother, child of God, he’d have better to be looking at. And the way she rubbed your back when you were poorly that time, and her legends of King Arthur and Cuchulainn. Poor Muddy, God rest her and the faithful departed. But don’t be straying yourself into the glooms.

And so life abounds with blessings. It is only a matter of noticing them. You are grateful to have an engagement, a reason to leave the hungry room, an interlude of parole from the cat’s grave stare, its reminder that man is not the Supreme Being. You will say to yourself, traversing the cold, great thoroughfares: I am walking through London because I am busy, a professional. I have an appointment with people who need me. Every role has its importance. London is full of actors. But I have been chosen today. And you will speak your few lines properly, with the austerity they demand, no bogus mellifluousness, no hamming or shamming, and the broadcast will be transmitted around the world like a wind, to India, Australia, Canada, South Africa, what a miracle, truly, when you think what man has done: airstreams of consolation engirdling the globe from a bunker in wintry London. And who can know what opportunities might result from today’s performance? An impresario could be listening, a casting agent; a director. A little playhouse in the provinces or in Ireland someplace. Well, it is possible; it is possible. Stranger things have happened. Everyone has a slow year. It is the nature of the profession. Bad 1952 has not all that long to live. Maybe the better times are coming in. On such a full sea are we now afloat, and we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures. People have braved the Atlantic for less of a chance. All you must brave is London.

The producer, an elderly Dubliner, has remembered you at the last moment, has somehow dug up your address, when he could have chosen others, and to be remembered, for any actor, is a mercy. Such a cultured, benign man. Handsome as Ariel in a cardigan. You know what they say about him, Molly. Well, what business of theirs? Blessed Jesus, couldn’t we do with more love in the world, not less. And if men wish the companionship and the beauty of one another, didn’t God in His gentleness make us all? The pay is not good – it never is at the BBC – and they always pay late, but you have grown skilled at economising, as has everyone since the years of war. You will be able to make the two guineas last a fort- night, maybe more. Roll the pastry good and thin and you’ll never grow fat, and hunger is the best sauce anyhow. And you could salt away a shilling or two for a Christmas gift for your grandchildren. A little comic-book, maybe; a bag of sherbet lemons. Perhaps you might even be able to redeem some of your costume jewellery from the pawn. (‘Ain’t so much of a market in second-hand eternity rings, love. Stands to reason when you reckon. The girls think it bad luck, see. I’ll have a shufti if you like. But I couldn’t give you much.’) It will be a blessing simply to work, to see people again. Sometimes the younger actors are kind. They sense your fate to be the one awaiting most of them in the end. You have become for the young an example of What Could Happen. We should be merciful to those embodying our dreads, for the season of our own denouement will come, when we may embody the dreads of others.

I know

That my

Redeemer

Liveth

Your daughter lives in Aberdeen with her children and husband, an organiser for the Furnacemen’s Union. Your twin grandsons are aged seven: James-Larkin and Emmet. You might go to them for the Christmas if you can somehow scrape the fare. Please God, some little job at the start of December. He is a good man, your son-in-law. But strict. Doesn’t drink. Pegeen is a most fortunate wife.

She writes to you monthly, of schoolyard adventures, of head lice and hand-me-downs, second-hand furniture. They don’t have much. Is her chattiness hiding something? Her handwriting is almost identical to yours.

To kiss the twins, smuggle them a sweet. So far away, Aberdeen. Five hundred miles from London, might as well be a thousand, for the night train is slow as a miser’s compassion and it’s rare you can afford the express. And the months tend to drift, and then tumble into seasons, and sure next thing you know it’s gone a year since you’ve seen them. Now don’t exaggerate, Molly. It is only eight months. And it shocked you, the last time, when she was waiting for you at the station, and hurrying towards your carriage with a smile would melt snow. It was like looking at your sister. For a moment, you couldn’t speak. The twins tugging your coat, leaping around you like terriers, and the thunderstorm of family resemblance.

Your sister died two years ago, is buried in Hollywood. You and she had not met in some time. You did not attend the funeral – it was too arduous a journey, you had not been at all well. And money. Always money. The obituaries had been fulsome. Someone helpful had mailed them from Dublin. ‘Greatest Irish actress of her noble generation.’ ‘The peerless heroine.’ ‘Academy Award nomination.’ ‘No character actress of her era would ever rival Sara Allgood. (A sister, Maire O’Neill, also acted.)’

—Envy is unbecoming in a woman who is an artist.

‘Go and blast yourself ’ you say, aloud. ‘It’s all I have left me.’ The wind chuckles feebly as it gusts down the Terrace and the rattle of the bin-lids is the rack of his breathing. You must not make me laugh so, with your scampish impertinence. You know asthma is made more distressing by amusement.

Oh the cemetery is only beautiful – so you have been assured – and the funeral was a Cleopatran occasion. A dozen of holy priests and one of them in line for a bishopric and the others all as jealous as schoolgirls. Hitchcock read the lesson. Mario Lanza led the hymns. In a neatly wooded parkland overlooking Culver City. And a vineyard nearby. Oh the little purple grapes. Admirers are often witnessed placing lilies on the tombstone, or copies of play-texts, lighted candles. A half-mile of palm trees on an avenue of glittering quartz; a Roman temple of remembrance so impos­ sibly white it would blind you to look at it in sunshine. Mexicans tending the orchids. Hoses spraying the lawns. Negro ladies in pink uniforms polishing the headstones till you’d nearly see your face in the marble. They give you a map when you visit, indi­ cating all the movie stars’ graves. It is whispered that Bela Lugosi owns a plot. So cool in the chapel on a blazing Los Angeles day. There is always music playing. Bach. Palestrina. A system of taped recordings. Onyx and porphyry. O, les petits muscats mauves ...

And if I had emigrated to America. He and I used to speak of it. The brave young country where differences do not weigh and all must create themselves over. They love and respect the outsider. We have fought in their wars, constructed their cathe­ drals, bridged their savage rivers. A Republic will always treasure the newcomer, the rebel, the player of wild cards, the fron­ tiersman. You and I shall truly feel we are come home at last. There is nothing in this heartbroken Ireland for either of us, Molly. It is a mirrorland of celibates and killers on bicycles, a Lilliput of Reverend Mothers and pittances and fogs and embar­ rassing stains on the mattress.

Rebecca. It was called. That picture.

Even after he died, in the rainfall of his mourning, you would imagine your newfound land. Him watching Niagara roar, or in the bird market at Baton Rouge, on the steamboat for Great Falls, Montana. Some go to Paradise, others to Purgatory, but the good to an eternal West. And in the years after his passing, the seasons of your American fame, you thought of him during every bow. To be a citizen of Brooklyn, of tall, stately Chicago. To gaze on Lake Michigan on an Illinois Christmas Eve, the faint smell of lakewater, and Lilliput far away, and the frost bitter-crisp as cham­ pagne. But the bags had been packed, the return sailing taken. There had never been a moment when you had decided not to defect. It was something you simply hadn’t got around to.

The clunk of doors closing, of hobnailed boots on the stair­ case. London is outside in the rain. The house’s barrenness looms at you, each partitioned-off room a stage in a theatre gone dark. Almost all who reside here are workingmen, labourers. No one in the house is married. It is impossible to imagine the laughter of a child ever lightening such corridors, or darkening them, for laughter can unease. And there would be no reason to imagine it, for it will never happen now. You hear them come and go; old men in their moleskins. Sometimes they pause on the landings conversing briefly of the weather, with the guardedness of men who do not like or trust one another and who have been hurt when they trusted or liked. Then the doors quietly close and someone switches on his wireless and there arises the stink of burnt frying. Pawned tools of a Friday. The pound sent home. The mail-boat on Christmas Eve. In your dreams the house screams with its murdered hungers. Its night-windows redden with lust.

To have someone to share the room with. A few words of an evening. Someone to make a pot of tea when you’re sick. Lately you have caught yourself grumbling to the walls, to the turrets of broken-spined paperbacks that stand sentry about the floor­ boards, to the lamp with its ripped shade, its dishevelled aplomb, the pegs on the coatless hatstand. The night-thoughts are the hardest. You cannot talk to the night. If you do, it might start talking back.

He is a good man, your son-in-law. Didn’t mean what he said. Every family has these little disagreements, when harsh words are spoken. You are his children’s only living grandparent, the mother of his wife. If you wrote and said you’re sorry and you’d give anything to see the twins. It’s been eight long months. If you promised.

Wind shrieks in the chimney as you open your tobacco tin and extract the makings of a poor cigarette. Little flimsies of paper, like torn pages of a bible, and fag-ends picked up in the street. But we mustn’t complain. Haven’t we health at the least, and the hurting comfort of smoke? My throat is a chimney breast, these lips a venting smokestack. Always he pleaded for you to quit the filthy practice, yet he never quitted, the great hypocrit­ ical flue, with his burblings and his belchings and his clouds of condemnation and his sermonising ridiculous smugness. It is different for a man. You know that very well. Wilde said a gentleman must always have an occupation. It would be a nice pancake entirely if he didn’t.

Papers strewn everywhere, blown around the room like old leaves, for one evening last week you forced open the jammed window, forgetting the storm that was billowing across London. The season’s weather has been violent, as though in overture to the hurricane, which struck last night as the street lights came on, with the bulb in the hermit’s ruin across the Terrace. You lay awake in Mr Holland’s bed listening to the wildness of the world, the racketing clatter; smashing roof slates. The bells of distant fire engines came borne on the storm. The house groaned like a ship in a cyclone. Around four in the morning there was a sudden brief lull and you realised that the public telephone on the street below was ringing. Who could it be? Would anyone answer? Should you yourself hurry down? Preposterous, dangerous. An insane notion came to you that it was Mr Duglacz in his bookshop, fright­ ened among his Torahs and autographs and folios. Out of what junkshop of the heart do such yearnings arise? It rang almost twenty minutes. You let it.

On the table is a letter from a postdoctoral student, a young Californian woman who intends visiting London ‘in late January or February’ and would like to conduct an interview. It would touch, naturally enough, on your recollections and impressions, your friendships and associations in the Ireland of those years, your time in America, especially on Broadway, your memories of your sister, her notable career in motion pictures, and of course on the question of Synge. The interview would be conducted with tact and sensitivity, as perhaps, if I may say so, without wishing to appear presumptuous or intrusive, only a woman could conduct it. Few of us, after all – I hope I do not trespass into the personal realm – have never been disappointed by a man.

—Ignore it, Changeling. It is a ruse, nothing more. Tell them nothing about us. Do not even reply. We are too precious to be displayed before the rabble.

I could offer a small sum as remuneration for your time. Would an amount of, say, $50 be acceptable? Alternatively I should be happy to send you anything you require to that value, since I know certain goods and foodstuffs are still quite scarce in England. There is another financial question I would like to broach, Miss O’Neill, and I hope I shall do so without offense. I under­ stand that some years ago you sold to his surviving family all your letters of an intimate nature from Synge. My institution has authorized me to say, should other manuscripts having to do with JMS and his circle remain in your possession (scripts, revisions, juvenilia, notebooks, drafts, fragments, abandoned works, et cetera) we would be honored to acquire them for our archive. Our library has considerable funding for acquisitions. [‘Considerable’ is typed in red, Molly. That’s the Yanks for you now. Subtlety is no Californian trait.] American scholars take an avid interest in Ireland, as you know: her literature and history, her revolution and liberation, the lives of her great men of letters. Our collection is being developed and extended all the time. We like to think that there is little we are missing. I should have to see and appraise personally any material, of course. But we believe the proposal to be of mutual benefit.

‘Liberation’ is good, you think to yourself now. Liberation, my arse in parsley.

The letter arrived almost four months ago, among the reams of final demands and sundry threats of disconnection. (‘Eviction is a recourse our client does not wish to pursue, but he shall have no alternative if the arrears remain unpaid.’) You did not know what should be done with it, whether to throw it in the trash. Similar effronteries have come before, nearly always from America; you have ignored them, discarded them, forgotten them. And yet, might it be redemptive, after all this time – not pleasant, but healing, a settling of the ghosts – to allow yourself to speak of those years? But what is there to say? He lived. He died.

We wanted one another. He was afraid. A poor play it would make, with no hero or heroine, and all of its best lines offstage. And if it ever had a chronology – which it must have, it must have – the scenes are no longer in the right order.

‘Mercia’ she is called. The author of the letter. A name holy water was never poured on. You imagine her – Dr Mercia Vinson – a startlingly vivid picture. A capable piece of work with full lips and plum-sleek hair, who was almost pretty as a girl but too foostery, too nervous, and was always outshone by the louder, gayer classmates who liked her in a pitying way. (‘Poor Mercia’s teeth. Poor Mercia’s clothes.’) But men want her all the same. They court her with ironies. There is a certain type of man who admires intelligence in a woman, a windmill against which he can pit himself, a quality he can punish, a reason for a woman to have to apologise frequently, which is what men find most arousing in women. Ah Molly, that’s not fair. Not all men are like that. Now Mercia sits in a library in hot California writing presumptuous, intrusive letters. But as suddenly as she forms, she vanishes into the odours of the room, for you have appre­ hended, in one of those moments of piercing clarity that can punctuate a hangover, that the young woman you are imagining is yourself.

You cross slowly to the scarred sideboard, kneel before it, knees creaking, and open the loose-hinged door. It falls out of its frame. The cat gives a start; approaches the interior’s black­ ness cautiously, like a child encountering a waxwork of itself. A reek of mildewed newspapers and mothballs and old wood. Paper bags of ancient birthday cards, a sad-eyed dog in a deerstalker hat, cancelled ration-books, expired passports, redundant lengths of tinfoil. Because you have to save tinfoil, although you cannot remember why – a habit acquired in the war. The mice have been exploring; there are pellets in a broken souvenir ashtray someone brought you from a pilgrimage to Lourdes. You hear them scrabble late at night, especially now with winter coming, in the walls, beneath the floorboards, in the cupboard over the cooker. The cat makes occasional attempts, with infrequent successes. It sometimes seems to have grown frightened of its prey.

Empty jars. Divorced slippers. Long-abandoned attempts at knitting. A shoebox of yellowing reviews. The cat slopes lithely into the sideboard, purring, eyes glimmered, and scrobs at a stack of faded place-mats. You touch its scrawny tail, which makes to tendril round your knuckles. Go way, you auld flirt, you mutter. They used to rain the shredded foil from the Spitfires by the hundredweight. Wasn’t that it? To bamboozle the German radar. Terrible what was done to those people in Dresden. They say that only the cathedral survived.

A chocolate-box of old postcards, none of them written. An Apache, Niagara Falls, the Opera House at San Francisco, Lake Pontchartrain, Boston Common, Times Square. At one point you had in mind to collect a postcard from every American town you played in, but after an eighth tour, or maybe the tenth, your resolve somehow evaporated. Yes. In New Orleans that time. Christ, what year would that have been? It came to you in the French Quarter, as you walked following rehearsal, through the windless heat of the sweltering noon and your own rattled thoughts and the aromas of strange food and the clouds of fly­ filled pollen. What is the point? What does any of it matter? Just as well, you think now. You silly old mummer. Bundles of them in laddered stockings or tied up in lengths of twine. And who will ever want them? Nobody.

A stretch into the sideboard’s deepest recess and you find the hidden thing you seek. A child’s Sunday School bible, the ribbon frayed and tangled, the threads of its binding unravelled. Folded into Ecclesiastes is the only letter you saved. The first time he had ever written your name. Wrong to have secretly kept it when his family had wanted everything, but on the morning when they came to take away all the proof of your existence you had been unable to surrender the last you had of him. Here it is now, the only thing you have ever stolen. You open out the withered notepaper, its creases greyed by age, its inkblots like a mapped archipelago. It has not seen daylight in seventeen years. There were nights you hoped the mice would devour it.

Glendalough House

Glenageary Kingstown

County Dublin

Thursday midnight

Dear Miss O’Neill: I hope that you will excuse the animated tone of my words to you earlier this evening at rehearsal. It was bloody of me and I am sorry. I allowed myself to become upset.

Permit me to add that I have had, since the moment I first observed them, the most earnest regard for your abilities. Moreover, I should like to state that I believe my respect to be shared by Mr Yeats and Lady Gregory. The thing not uttered may yet be felt. I should not like you to think of me as an enemy.

You must permit the words to lead you to the heart words come from. You requested of me advice. That is it.

In the hope that we have cleared the air and with apologies, again, I remain, very sincerely,

John Synge

His decorous handwriting, its elaborated loops, like the cursive of a Victorian governess so repeatedly jilted that she had time to perfect womanly accomplishments. Even to write a letter was a performance for him, poor owl – as though he felt, during its composition, that someone was observing from behind his shoulder, that from the fireplace in his study or the wardrobe in his bedroom some demon of disapproval might roar. The eyes of ancestral portraits gazing down on him as he wrote. That is not ink. It is our blood.

—What a prig I was, Changeling. For Jaysus’ sake, burn it.

And you know, reading it now, that this is the last time. There is guilt. Yes. You had resolved always to keep it, to bequeath it to your daughter, whom you have not seen in a while but who is named for the heroine in the play that made him famous and is as fierily magnetic to men as her mother once was. But today, in the October of 1952, your pledge to yourself will end. One must eat, after all. It is not a matter of choice. You place the sentenced letter in the pocket of your only coat, a hooded cloak nobody wanted at the end of a pan­ tomime’s run; it had been worn by an ugly sister. Mr Duglacz will pay a fair price. You will not weep – no. It is what he would have wanted. And Pegeen will understand. I cannot bear the hunger any more.

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. Vicious old hatchet of a housekeeper was in it. What’s this was her name? Mrs Danvers. Yes. And the poor, brave bride and the sea and the shadows and the ghosts in the windblown curtains.

It seems important, suddenly, to clean and order the room. These illusions still arise occasionally. Our home is our mind – oh for Jesus’ sake, stop it. But perhaps at least the scrags of tinfoil could be discarded. You screw them into a globe, stuff it tightly into the gas mask, whose eyes are grown so dusty that the wearer would be blind. A spider scuttles crablike from a gash in the windpipe, evicted from its rubberised world. A cracked snow­ globe of the Matterhorn – what sophisticate gave me that? – and a dismasted ship-in-a-bottle ‘From Ellis Island: Gateway to New York’. You pour the last of the gin into the dregs of the tea.

Adultery comes the whisper of the chimney.

‘Up your sanctified Kingstown hole,’ you say quietly, raising the chipped delft cup to what you imagine to be his presence, or at least, the opposite of his absence.

—I see there is no hope for you at all, Miss O’Neill. One is supposed to raise one’s little finger while sipping.

The leaden bell of St Mary Magdalene. So loud it hurts your teeth. Fleets of ferries cross the billows from the station on Ellis Island, breasting for the Manhattan of your mind. Your eyes meet the window. Across the street, his light is out. The curtain, predictably, is drawn.

 

Copyright © 2010 by Joseph O'Connor